Peter Gomes teaches courses with names like "The Christian Bible and Its Interpretation" and "Introduction to Public Preaching." But what he strives for in every class he teaches at Harvard University is to challenge his students to explore what it means to live a good life.
"They're all related to the notion of trying to be good in a fallen world," says Dr. Gomes. That notion is a "great heroic Christian theme" - one that he says is growing in appeal among today's young people.
For 32 years, Gomes has been the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals. He's also a Baptist minister at the postcard-perfect Memorial Church set in Harvard Yard, the heart of the Cambridge, Mass., campus. In the lecture hall, in the pulpit, or over dinner, he always aims to respond to what he calls a "moral curiosity" inherent in young people. Excerpts from his recent conversation with the Monitor follow.
On the desire to be good:
This interest in goodness has been around a long time; it's been growing in intensity in the last dozen years.
Sept. 11 didn't cause anything. It simply sharpened the focus of something that has been evolving. My students are not indifferent, but Sept. 11 is so manipulatable, that they're appropriately wary of it.
On the need for role models:
What was most important for me, as a boy from 18 to 22, was to see adults modeling the life of the mind. I wanted to see how ... thinking, bright intellectuals conducted their affairs. How did they carry on their lives? What did they have that I could learn from? I see my job here as not simply imparting information or technique, but, in some sense, to show people how to live - or at least how I live.
We divide our [lecture] classes into sections of 10 or 12 people, and I always teach one or two of those. It's in the section where I actually do get to know people rather closely.
Then, I give a dinner for all the students of my course at the end of every year. We divide them into groups of 15 and have as many of those dinners as it would take to cover the whole class. For those who want that kind of contact, my teaching assistants and I work very hard to make it happen.
On learning to make a life:
The object of an education is to make a life and not a living. What troubles me more and more about great research universities is that we are far more interested in teaching how to make a living.
Those who have grown up on affluence really have not yet learned how to deal with the things that money cannot secure or buy. The test of a good life is not how you live in good times, but how you manage in bad times. It's the business of college to help prepare you to do just that.
I have seen people beginning to take that notion seriously for themselves. They don't want to be what their parents want from them, which is usually something better than what Mom and Dad had for themselves. One of our duties is to try to suggest what that job might be. One looks for it in history, in the lives of great men and women, the recovery of the sense of heroism and noble purpose.
On the search for heroes:
We've spent so much time muckraking and exposing, but most of us have a great hunger for the opposite, for people who move and inspire us and can transform us.
The vacuum of the heroic was filled so quickly by the firemen on Sept. 11. But they were doing what they've been paid to do, trained to do, agreed to do.
We, desperate for a sense of purpose in the middle of all that carnage, recognized they had to be larger than life, so they became so. That illustrates a hunger that Sept. 11 didn't create, but merely exposed.
On not knowing it all:
When I teach my Bible course, [it shows that] you have to learn to read not only with your eyes, but [with] the eyes of others. You have to understand the point of view of the person who is writing this, and the people for whom it was originally written. How do you make the connection between the original audience and yourself?
There is a range of ways to do that. But [it] teaches intellectual adventurousness, which is important for the life of the mind.
It also teaches intellectual modesty, which means you're not likely to get it all, so you have an obligation to a certain amount of deference. That is the most exciting thing you can teach kids, because by and large, if they're here at Harvard in the first place, they think they know it all. Not only do you not know it all, but it can't all be known.
I do not want to say people should take a course in the Bible or the history of civilization so they can do x, y, or z. But they won't know any of those until they explore what they know nothing about. This is very different from a fast-food restaurant, where you know what you're going to get. This is a high-class restaurant where the menu is in a foreign language you don't understand, and you're afraid you'll get snails or something that tastes awful.
On consumerism versus moral curiosity:
Today's students are the largest consumer market in the history of the world. They're not looked upon as moral beings, but as consumers. Their concern is to have vast amounts of money to spend on useless things that give momentary pleasure and sensations, but like toys under the Christmas tree, they are suddenly broken or useless and there is a desire for more.
Yet they as people are more than consumers.
I am utterly convinced, both by long tenure and recent observation, that young people are terribly eager to know what it means to be good. They are very interested in knowing it, but very few places define it. They won't get much of it in the media, in public or political life, but they have a notion that there is goodness somewhere.
That is what moral curiosity is. If we can respond to that at the right age, much good can be accomplished. We're laying down for these kids a kind of foundation [from] which they'll live for the rest of their lives. College is not a waiting room but its own reality that ought to be taken seriously. What happens there affects the way they live the rest of their lives.
On questioning oneself about what's good and what's bad:
Everybody reading the paper has a visceral reaction; either it's good or it's bad. One ought to, as a daily exercise, ask oneself: Why is it good? Why is it bad? And what are some of the issues that I can respond to, that I am interested in? Why do I think that it is unfortunate that the Republicans control the Congress? Or why is it a great thing? Why do I think it is a bad thing to go to Iraq, or why is it morally responsible? I don't want to rely on politicians or media pundits. How can I exercise those views?
Everybody has a capacity for moral curiosity.
• First in a series of occasional articles.